(Found a genuinely great news article that needs no embellishment)
(It was a first-hand account of the 2011 Tsunami told by a man in Iwate)
(Inquired if I could translate; they were about to publish an English e-book)
(Joined the e-book project as a volunteer→Here is the article)
When I started this blog, I'd stated that truly "news-worthy" stories didn't need any embellishment. I recently came across such an article. It has now been shared widely on Facebook (31K+ "Like"s), Rakuten Social News, and Yahoo! Japan Video Topics—a surprising feat for an article from a small local paper.
(Original article link here.)
Touched by his honest words, I contacted the paper to ask if I could translate it into English. As it turned out, they were planning to publish a Kindle e-book, containing personal accounts like this one as well as reconstruction news, all translated into English. The local community paper is called "Ōtsuchi Mirai Shimbun," meaning, "Ōtsuchi Future Times." The e-book proceeds will benefit the newspaper's continued operation; it started in August 2012 to support the community by documenting its rebirth. They were short on volunteer translators, so I gladly took the job.
This translation is published here so the article can be promoted overseas. The e-book will be available on March 11; I will provide the link to it once it becomes available.
【3月11日更新情報：『Life after the Tsunami vol.1: A Collection of The Otsuchi Mirai Shimbun News Reports』がアマゾンKindleストアから出版されました。こちらからご覧ください。
Updated March 11: Life after the Tsunami vol.1: A Collection of The Otsuchi Mirai Shimbun News Reports has now been published from Amazon.co.jp Kindle Store. The e-book contains this article as well as other gripping accounts and news stories -- please check it out from the following link.】
A Fellow Rooftop Refugee Waved and Smiled, “You, too?” While the Tsunami Swept Us Away
First-Person Account by Ryōichi Usuzawa
On March 11, 2011, Ryōichi Usuzawa was a private business owner in Ōtsuchi-chō, Iwate Prefecture. This is a raw account as told by Mr. Usuzawa, who is now 64.
“I was at home that day. I happened to be writing a business report. All that was left was to bind it into a file, so I was in a euphoric mood, putting on some finishing touches like index tabs. Just then, there was a tremendous, enormous quake. Nothing like what we’d experienced in the past—a truly terrifying quake. It made me wonder if our house would collapse, if I might die. The printer, PC, bookshelf, records—everything [came tumbling down]. I couldn’t move a step. I was hoping it would stop quickly, but it lasted for a really long time.”
“When the shaking finally stopped, my wife said from the 1st floor: ‘Otōsan*, let’s run—a tsunami is coming.’ Neither the TV nor the lights worked. I switched on the radio, and they were saying the tsunami would be 3 meters high. We had lived on the same land since my father’s generation, and I thought, ‘It would never come up here.’ I told myself, ‘Calm down, calm down,’ and I continued tidying the mess. I then started fixing the TV.”
“My eldest son ran home from work, and he, too, told me the tsunami was coming and we should run; even then, I said, ‘Calm down—there is no way the tsunami will come [this far].’ ”
“Right after him, my second son’s wife and my 11-month-old grandchild showed up. My worried wife decided to go outside, and soon after they shouted: ‘Otōsan, run from the tsunami!’ They added, ‘Look after Taro.’ Taro is a Shiba Inu (dog) with whom I’d been through thick and thin for the past 10 years.”
“[Even then] I thought, why would a tsunami come [this far], and I opened the window by our front door—then I saw, by the train station… Our house is about 100 m (approx. 328 feet) from the JR (Japan Rail) station. All along the railway track, 2-story houses were collapsing like dominoes, and their wreckage was heading this way. Above them, there was a great cloud of dusty smoke. I was momentarily completely puzzled—why would we have an earthquake at 2:46, and have those houses collapse at 3:20?”
“I happened to gaze downward, and saw that black muddy water was rushing toward us. Crumpled homes were heading our direction, making a crushing noise. At this point I accepted, ‘Ah, the tsunami is here.’ Then… I was told to look after Taro, and I had last seen him run up to the 2nd floor. I looked [there], and I found him huddled in a corner of the closet. I thought I’d hold him in my arms and run, but the muddy water came rushing up the staircase, crushing [what was in its path]. Soon, the hallway upstairs was full of muddy water. So I had no choice but to climb onto the roof.”
“From there I saw: The sight. Ōtsuchi was a giant washing machine. Round and round the whirlpool spun. Cars and houses that were swept away came smashing into my house, with a grinding sound. The volume was incredible. Among the noise, I’d hear voices saying, ‘Help--please!’ and hissing sound from leaking propane tanks. Car alarms that shorted were going off. I’d hear voices saying ‘Please help,’ but I couldn’t see the people.”
“Then there were others who were trapped like me, being swept away on their rooftops. I could see them being swallowed into the vortex, one by one. It was sometime past 3, so the late afternoon sun glinted across the scene.”
“I remember this most vividly to this day—this guy wearing a blue anorak, in his jeans, a slender fellow with an armband—he was waving at me. 40 or 50 meters away (approx.130-164 ft.). It wasn’t like he was asking me to help. He had a big smile on his face, as if to say, ‘You too, huh?’”
“3 houses down, a neighbor’s propane tank exploded and caught on fire. The strong wind carried it down the water, and our house caught fire soon after. I felt some rumbling under my feet, and I could tell the house came loose. It was starting to be swept away. We drifted about 300 meters (approx. 984 ft.). I was still holding onto the wire cable that anchored the TV with one arm, while clutching Taro with the other arm.”
“With our house burning, I thought we’d burn to death if we stayed. About 50 meters (164 ft.) away, there happened to be a 2-story house built of concrete, so I thought about going there, but there were many obstacles. There were things like large logs and propane tanks rushing by. I had no idea how to get there.”
“Just then, exactly at that time, the street showed itself—as if to tell me 'Go here.' I could see the landscape clearly, only in that spot. Everything else looked murky. The path looked open to me. It was as though I was being told, ‘Travel this path.’ When I looked harder, there was an electrical cable above. I thought I might be electrocuted to death if I grabbed it, but when I did, it was fine, so I hung onto it and followed it, all the while with Taro in my arm. The water sometimes came up to my chin. I was dressed in socks, jeans and a sweater. I barely made it, and plunked myself onto the 2nd floor [of the house].”
[The concrete structure where he fled temporarily. He used the 2nd floor balcony. Image courtesy of Ōtsuchi Mirai Shinbun]
“When I felt relieved a little, the second wave came. The water came up to my knees, so I found some storage shelves and zabuton cushions to stand on. When that water came, even I thought, ‘I’ll finally die.’ I felt resigned, thinking, ‘Other people are in the same situation as me now.’ Just about accepted my end. But then, it stopped. At the time I was frantically banging at the ceiling, wanting to break it to get to the beams. It was impossible. Just as the water went down to around my ankle height, 5-6 propane tanks at the convenience store next door exploded. It was scorching hot, I couldn’t stand it. Fire sparks were swirling about my feet; it was so hot, I thought my glasses might melt. I saw the inn next door then, so I climbed out of the balcony, hopped onto floating homes and cars, and made it there. Once there, I started shouting loudly, ‘Help! Please, help!’”
[He made his way among the debris down to the inn, seen far on the left. Image courtesy of NPO Tōno Magokoro Network, taken in March 2011]
[The convenience store next door caught fire & jumped to the surrounding homes. Image courtesy of Ōtsuchi Mirai Shinbun]
“Then, there was a firefighter by the mountain road. He waited for me, holding out a stepladder. I proceeded through the rubbles, occasionally slipping on tin roofs, and I was pulled up to the land and finally saved.”
“At times, Taro’s leash and collar would come loose—at multiple occasions I thought, how much easier it would be for myself, if I left him behind. But when I saw his face and heard him whimper… We’d shared joys and sorrows over the years, and I’d sleep with him. When I looked at him trembling, I felt I must save him, too.”
“Once I was able to stand on the ground, I felt a tremendous relief from fear. I was trembling so much I could not speak. I was told to go to the Central Community Hall, but I was so cold I didn’t even feel like walking. As I walked shivering—it must have been someone I know—someone said, ‘Are you all right, Mr. Usuzawa?’ and put a towel around my neck. I don’t know who that was.”
“I looked for my family members, believing they’d be at the Community Hall. I looked for 30 minutes, but couldn’t find anyone. I was waiting at the lobby, and just then, my wife came running, saying, ‘Otōsan! Taro!’ Tears running down her cheeks, she held Taro and me tightly. Apparently she saw me being swept away by the wave and thought, ‘Otōsan must have died.’”
“It was very, very cold in the Community Hall. Within 30 minutes, 2 older folks who were in front of us passed away, and they were carried off to where the partition was set up. I thought, ah, I might die, too. A public health nurse brought me some newspaper, and when I wrapped myself with that, the warmth was remarkable. I was amazed just some newspaper could result in that much warmth.”
“Next morning at about 6 a.m., a fire started at the nearby elementary school, and the blaze spread to the Community Hall. So we moved onto Ogakuchi Meeting Center. When I entered, saying, ‘Hello—’ there were 5 people lying down. I called out to them a couple of times, but there was no response. I thought, ‘Could it be…?’ It turned out they were long gone. Around the nearby embankment, several more poor souls washed up. In the midst of the black mud, there was a light sprinkling of snow. When you witness one person die, you might feel, ‘Oh, what a poor thing,’ but when you see dozens of people, it becomes a ‘sight.’ I couldn’t find words to describe it.”
[Usuzawa explains the situation in front of the Meeting Center. Light snow was floating, just like 2 years ago. Image courtesy of Ōtsuchi Mirai Shinbun]
“I acted as a facilitator at the evacuation center, but at times it was unbearable to see. People were out of their minds. There was a young mother whose 2-year-old daughter was taken by the wave at arm’s reach. She’d gone half-mad. All I could do was hug her tightly. I’d say, ‘It’s okay, everyone is here for you so it’s all right.’ When someone asks you, ‘Mr. Usuzawa, how is your family, was everyone safe?’ and you respond, ‘Yes, they are all right,’ but then when you ask them, ‘How about you?’ they respond with something like, ‘We had a family of 5 but now we have 3’… All I could do was hug them.”
“After that March 11th, I definitely hugged many people. When I watched 9/11, the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the tsunami in Aceh, or the Sichuan earthquake, I saw them on newspapers or TV, and I felt sorry for them. But in my mind, I thought that would never happen to me. I now realize how stupid I was. It’s not about material goods—those things are not important at all. It really made me realize, our bonds with people should come first. Before it happened, I used to think our things and cars gave us status. But when I witnessed so many people suffer, I saw that you cannot try to buy connections with people. My value system was completely turned around because of the 3/11 tsunami.”
Mr. Usuzawa said, “I think my being allowed to survive was a gift from Shinto and Buddhist deities.” Saying he wanted to pass on everything he could convey, he showed me around the town as snow danced in the wind, pointing out how the events unfolded. “At that time, I might have thought it would be okay if only I could survive… just about myself,” he said, blaming himself for selfish thoughts. On one hand he survived, but when he thinks of many lives that were lost, he says “I feel really restless.” To this day, he can still remember vivid details of the smiling man’s face.
*Otōsan means Dad; Many Japanese wives have traditionally referred to their spouses as Otōsan or Papa once they had children.
On 3/11/2013, exactly 2 years from that fateful day, Ōtsuchi Mirai Shinbun will publish a selection of personal tsunami accounts like this one in an English e-book at the Amazon Kindle store. The proceeds will support future efforts at the locally-run newspaper to keep the community together.
【Updated March 11: Life after the Tsunami vol.1: A Collection of The Otsuchi Mirai Shimbun News Reports has been published from Amazon.co.jp Kindle Store. You can access the e-book here.】
[As published on and copyrighted by Ōtsuchi Mirai Shinbun, Feb. 7, 2013; Original article by Kayo Mimizuka, translated with permission. Not for reproduction; please contact first if you wish to publish this article.]